National Singing Ambassador Update February 2007

  • Posted on 1 February 2007 at 9:00am
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Since the Secretary of State’s announcement of my appointment as ‘Singing Ambassador’ I have been inundated with messages of support, offers of help, examples of best practice and general enthusiasm for our campaign, which has been incredibly gratifying. To all of you who have written to me – thank you!

Not surprisingly, many have asked what exactly we will be doing with the campaign, when and how? I cannot answer all those questions in detail here and now but I can give a brief sketch of our aspirations for the campaign, as it will unfold. Though what we are embarking upon is a four-year programme, leading up to the 2012 Olympiad, we intend that the culture of singing that it will put in place will be ongoing and long lasting. There really is no point in getting children singing for a few months then disappearing off the horizon.

First, it should be said that whilst this is new investment, we are to some extent only continuing and up scaling work that is already underway. I have been chairing the Music Manifesto’s singing work stream for some time now and most of what we collectively recommended to ministers at the time of the publication of the Manifesto Report no. 2 was the distillation of our discussions during the life of that work stream. We consulted very widely amongst vocal experts and brainstormed many possibilities. The singing campaign is but one of a raft of proposals that will gradually unfold in the coming months as part of the goverment’s positive response to that report, and many of our aims in singing will be best served when all the different strands are proceeding at full speed. For the record, neither I nor the Music Manifesto nor our partners in government see the singing campaign as a diversion from the overall pledges to extend musical experiences of all kinds to young people. It is one piece of the jigsaw.

My first task is to gather a team of experienced singing leaders – the people who actually deliver the current range of best practice models in primary singing that we would like to see expanded and replicated – to oversee our activities, to monitor, guide and advise. It is very important to me that the leading body in our singing campaign should be doers. I will be gathering together this team in the next few weeks, whilst also setting up the structure of the campaign (i.e. who does what, who takes the phone calls, who dishes out dosh – all that boring stuff) with the two government departments (DCMS and DfES) who are the campaign’s ‘parents’. I will also be talking to other government departments who have expressed an interest in the kind of social and behavioural benefits that singing can bring.

Second, we will want to speed up the process of training new singing leaders as soon as possible. This doesn’t just mean people who want to be advanced skill music or singing teachers, it means training up the ‘ordinary’, non-specialised teachers in primary schools to be able to lead singing and feel confident doing so. I hope very much that arts organisations that have put their toes in the water with respect to singing in their communities will take this as their cue to jump in further. We welcome their expertise and we welcome the enthusiastic involvement of those already engaged in running choirs and singing groups of every kind. As well as celebrating the existing singing excellence in some places we will want to spread these rewards to where at the moment it may be thin on the ground.

This campaign aims to foster a habit and culture of singing throughout schools, so that it becomes natural and everyday, not just an activity that takes up a few hurried minutes in the morning once or twice a week. Above all, this means reaching and enthusing headteachers. They may not know it yet, but we are going to smother them with the warm embrace of our message – what amazing transformations well-put-together group singing brings to schools. We have already begun discussions with media partners with our ideas for the spread of a universal singing campaign. I am delighted to say that so far we have met nothing but enthusiasm and a willingness to roll up sleeves and do their bit.

Third, we will begin the process of selecting the songs for the proposed national songbook and negotiating the best way of publishing it both in hard copy and online. There has been some mischievously foggy misinformation about this collection of songs circulating in the press and I probably should lay to rest one or two bogeys here and now. The songbook – initially – will have at least 300 songs in it, with the hope that over time the online version might grow to double that number. These songs will be selected by the very best vocal animateurs in the country who are already in the business of leading the singing of primary school children. The songs will need to suit the voice ranges of primary age children, be focused primarily on group singing and reflect the extraordinarily rich and diverse musical landscape of theBritish Islesand of modern British life.

Some songs may be newly composed, others will be much older. Some may be devised by pupils themselves, some by their teachers. I hope it has a strongly regional flavour, not because I want it to be artificially PC, but because, as it happens, children love singing dialect songs and there are now really superb songs circulating in schools that have been learnt from their teachers travelling around the world and brought in by pupils whose parents or grandparents come from other cultures. One reason why faith schools of all denominations have historically had more success preserving singing assemblies is because of the ‘bank’ of sacred songs and hymns they had to draw on for the purpose. Our new songbook will aim to give all other types of primary school a full bank account of songs too (and there will be an overlap of material in any case). There are several different methods of teaching children music through singing that have developed over the years and the songbook will want to include these different approaches, not over-emphasise one. Good singing leading is a broad church and long may it continue to be so.

Whatever you may have read in the press, we have never envisaged this as a small list of karaoke chart-toppers from the recent past; there are plenty of published versions of those already on the shelves! Finally, this campaign is not about me rushing about in a frantic whirlwind trying to get everybody’s children singing, popping up in schools and leading sing-songs (as has been suggested, hilariously, by some of the commentators on it in the media). Apart from anything else, I have a full time job as a composer and broadcaster to worry about most days of the week.

The campaign is about bringing together the expertise that exists in some places and allowing it to reach out to those places where singing is a low priority at the moment. I see this as a vast coalition of interests. Some people have succeeded brilliantly in getting teenage boys to sing, for example, others find it well nigh impossible (viewers to BBC2’s compelling series The Choir will have sympathised with the challenges faced by Gareth Malone), so our job is to show how those who do know how it’s done share with everyone else their tricks and secrets. Some areas have a team delivering wonderful singing programmes in all their primary schools, other areas’ Music Service don’t have someone to co-ordinate singing at all. Our job will be to cajole the under-performers to raise their game and learn from those areas where singing is a success.

I was a chorister myself many centuries ago, and so I am delighted that the country’s 40 or so choir schools will be joining us in this initiative, prepared to learn as well as teach, likewise the increasingly confident and musically-inspiring performing arts colleges, specialist schools and academies. We have a great opportunity to make a difference and so I hope everyone who loves singing will find ways of contributing.

Above all, I hope we can be determined to make this a cynicism-free zone. This is not primarily about the needs of the repertoire, our cultural heritage, the government, the music industry, or even the long term health & future of ‘music’ – it is about the children.